From the time Bert Cunningham could hold a pencil, he was making pictures of ships.
“Other kids were drawing cars and horses,” he said. “I was drawing sailboats.”
The obsession would be rekindled during his career in international development, travelling to more than 60 countries to provide counsel on customs and trade. Officials in the island nation of Mauritius asked him to head the country’s customs and excise department in 2002 to clean up deep-rooted problems with corruption and drug smuggling. In 2006, he was named Mauritian of the Year, the first foreigner to receive the honour.
While there, he discovered Mauritius was home to some of the world’s best model-ship builders, due in part to their seafaring history as an important transportation link situated in the Indian Ocean about 3,000 kilometres off the coast of South Africa. A French ambassador saw potential in the 1950s and organized technical training to create an industry. Men traditionally build the wooden hulls, and the women create the rigging and sails and take care of the intricate carving on the historic boats. Most are sold to European museums.
Cunningham commissioned a few for his Spartan office. The reaction was immediate.
“Everybody who came into my office, and they were often businessmen or drug smugglers or money launderers who didn’t want to be there, everyone immediately headed straight for the ships — they were amazed at the quality and the detail.”
His obsession rekindled, Cunningham started ordering six to eight boats a year for himself, choosing them based on their historic significance. Each boat takes between six months to a year and a half to complete, and costs from a few thousand dollars to as much as $75,000. Cunningham’s role was to find the plans or pictures for boats in books and museums for the modellers to recreate.
“After 50 to 60 boats, I thought ‘This is getting out of control. What do I do?’ ”
And thus the Doran Bay Model Ships Museum was born. It’s the only private museum in Canada dedicated solely to model ships, and it displays one of the largest private collections of model ships in the world. Located in the home Cunningham shares with his wife, Simla, in Iroquois, Ont., about two hours outside of Montreal on the way to Toronto, the museum opened last September and currently displays 44 of the 120 boats in Cunningham’s collection, lovingly housed in glass cases. The largest is two metres long and cost about $75,000 to build. The boats reflect Cunningham’s interests in world discovery, and in Canadian and U.S. warships. In commemoration of the War of 1812 bicentennial, there are 14 ships from that period.
The setting is suitable because Doran Bay played a role in the war, as the U.S. army sailed up the St. Lawrence River and stayed there with its 327 boats, 200 horses and 7,000 soldiers before moving east to fight the British in the Battle at Crysler’s Farm in 1813.
“The invasion of Canada,” Cunningham notes with a historian’s glee, “happened right here.”
With ships like the Santa Maria sailed by Columbus, the Bounty sailed by Captain Bligh, Magellan’s Trinidad and even the Titanic, the collection also serves as a history of the world. Each ship is recreated in astonishing detail, down to the cannons, and sometimes the sailors as well. Each ship has its own story, which is explained in interpretive panels.
One of Cunningham’s favourite models is that of the HMS Shannon, an old-stock British frigate that squared off against the Americans’ brand new, technologically advanced USS Chesapeake and its 38 cannons off of Boston in 1813. The two ships fired at each other, only 35 metres apart. Sailors from the Shannon boarded the U.S. vessel, and when the smoke had cleared nearly 80 men were dead and the British had won in a battle lasting 11 minutes. To spur on his troops, 31-year-old U.S. Captain James Lawrence is said to have uttered the words “Don’t give up the ship” before he died. It remains a rallying cry of the U.S. Navy. The Chesapeake was sailed into Halifax as a spoil of war amid great fanfare days later, and the Shannon was recently featured on the Canadian $2 coin.
There are 43 more ships with stories to tell at the Doran Bay Museum, where the art of model-ship building brings history to life.
IF YOU GO
The Doran Bay Model Ships Museum is located two hours east of Montreal, just off of Highway 401 outside of Iroquois, Ont., at 11128 Country Rd. 2, on Highway 2. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors and $25 for a family. It makes a nice one- to two-hour stopover on the way to Toronto. It’s open from May to November, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Sunday. Guided tours are available.
The museum is located minutes from Upper Canada Village and Fort Wellington in Prescott, Ont. People wishing to visit longer can stay at the Doran Bay Resort, which has nine cottages with views of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Iroquois Lock, located on the same property as the museum.
For more information, visit www.doranbayships.com andwww.doranbayresort.com